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New Mexico Says No to Lunch-Shaming

New Mexico has delivered a deathblow to acts that shame kids whose parents can’t make their school lunch payments, and we’re hoping plenty of other states follow suit.

The backstory: If you’ve not seen lunch-shaming in action, be grateful. Recently a child in Arizona who was behind on lunch payments to the school was stamped (!) on the arm with “I Need Lunch Money.”

If you’re shaking your head in horror at the body-branding of a child, we’re with you. And we’re still shaking our heads about the commenters who thought this was a perfectly legit, no-big-deal way for a school to convey that message to the parents behind on payments.

There are other stunningly cruel approaches to lunch-shaming: Some schools require their cafeteria staff to remove a child’s hot food and dump it in the trash if they find out he doesn’t have money to pay — while providing alternatives like sandwiches, milk and fruit. (Somehow we can’t imagine a kid would be all that hungry after the humiliation of having their peers watch their hot lunch be taken away and dumped in the trash.) Other schools force poor children to clean cafeteria tables in front of schoolmates, ostensibly to “pay the debt.” Wow.

More: 10-year-old publicly lunch-shamed for past due account

This shaming is often just as soul-crushing to adults forced to carry it out to keep their jobs. A Pittsburgh-area cafeteria worker made the national news when she quit her job rather than refuse students hot lunches. (She’s our hero, pretty much.) And many school employees say they will pay for kids’ lunches rather than see the children shamed.

The good news? New Mexico has now outlawed the public shaming of kids whose parents can’t make lunch payments for them. On Thursday, Governor Susana Martinez (R) signed the Hunger-Free Students’ Bill of Rights, which demands that schools work directly and privately with parents on lunch debts. The bill also directs schools to help parents sign up for federal meal assistance. This move by New Mexico (go, New Mexico!) is the first such legislation in the country. The best part: The bill applies not just to public schools, but also to private and religious schools that receive federal student-meal subsidies.

Anti-hunger activists (and seriously, who could be against “anti-hunger”? Are there any “pro-hunger” activists out there? We’d love to hear from you) are understandably thrilled by New Mexico’s legislation.

More: Mom is shamed for including cake in her child’s lunch

“People on both sides of the aisle were genuinely horrified that schools were allowed to throw out children’s food or make them work to pay off debt,” said Jennifer Ramo, executive director of New Mexico Appleseed. New Mexico Appleseed is an anti-poverty group (again, can’t we file this all under “pro-human” and “pro-children”?) that spearheaded the legislation.

“It sounds like some scene from Little Orphan Annie, but it happens every day,” added Ramo.

The New York Times reported that Senator Michael Padilla (D) said he was very glad to introduce the bill after his own childhood spent in foster homes, experiencing numerous brutal shaming tactics.

“I made Mrs. Ortiz and Mrs. Jackson, our school lunch ladies, my best friends,” Padilla said. “Thank goodness they took care of me, but I had to do other things like mop the floor in the cafeteria. It was really noticeable that I was one of the poor kids in the school.”

School meal debt is a problem for more than three-quarters of school districts in the U.S. Most school districts instruct staff to collect outstanding debt via texts, emails and phone calls. Collection agencies are also occasionally brought in, which can be downright terrifying for a family already living in poverty.

The New Mexico law still says it’s OK to penalize students who owe lunch money by withholding transcripts or revoking parking privileges for high school students. Sigh. Wish we lived in a world where every child was fed a hot lunch at school, every day, at no cost to families. They didn’t ask to be born and have to sit through fourth grade geography and P.E. class, people. The least we owe our kids is a free hot lunch at school.

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